Goa: Paradise Lost?

On 18th February, a young British schoolgirl, named Scarlett Keeling, was found dead on a beach in Goa, a western Indian state extremely popular with foreigners, especially those on shoestring budgets looking for sun and sand.

What, at first, was hurriedly passed off as a case of drowning due to inebriation later turned out, at the insistent calls for further investigation by her mother, Fiona MacKeown, to be rape and murder.

The unfortunate incident made headlines, both in India and abroad, pretty much displacing stories of Madeleine McCann, the young girl abducted in Portugal in the British tabloids. Suddenly, Goa – the perfect holiday haven, that attracts millions of foreign tourists each year, a majority of them British – is not being talked about for its sandy beaches, great food, or for its quaint churches, but for all that is wrong – sex, drugs, rave parties and mafia connections – with this seemingly perfect tourist spot.

The Goa of today is very different from its hippy days of the 1960s, it now attracts all kinds of tourists, including gap year students. But Scarlett Keeling was one of the millions of young men and women looking for cheap accommodation and wild partying who end up in Goa. Scarlett, according to police reports was no stranger to this scene, even at 15. In her diary she is said to have written, in graphic detail, all about sex and the hallucinogenic drugs that she took even when back home in Britain – before leaving on the six-month trip to India.

The day Scarlett was killed, she had been partying alone with local men till the wee hours of the morning, high on a cocktail of drugs. This doesn’t, of course, condone what happened, but, the fact that she was a minor and alone did lead many to wonder what her mother was thinking. She had decided to leave Scarlett by herself in Goa in the “care” of a local tour guide without any money or a mobile phone, while the rest of the family – the mother, her boyfriend and six other children – toured adjoining Indian states. MacKeown has denied negligence and said that, in hindsight, she was simply too trusting – that was her only mistake. She also claims this huge cover-up of her daughter’s death involves high officials in the government and the police, who are protecting powerful drug dealers.

That may or may not be true, but the fact of the matter is that leaving her minor, drug-addicted daughter alone in a foreign land without money even for accommodation was not the smartest thing for a mother to do. MacKeown has, thus, had to appear in court to answer questions of negligence.

But the incident has revealed a more sinister aspect to Goa’s partying. There’s always been an easy access to drugs, but the state has become an international hub-of-sorts for drug trafficking, primarily to Europe. And minors are often carriers, since they are the least suspected. It’s not surprising then, that increasingly, foreigners are being arrested for their involvement in local crime, and many have even lost their lives due to drug use.

The mystery of Scarlett’s murder is still not solved, though there have been some arrests, Whether this was a case involving the drug lords is hard to say. The point, however, is that the death has forced the government to address some pressing issues about tourist and locals’ behavior and the growing presence of illegal activity. Some policing has been stepped up since the murder, with enforcement and restrictions on alcohol sales and partying but cleaning up is not going to be easy, since the drug trade is rampant in the state and it’s clearly been done with the knowledge and involvement of local officials.

Meanwhile, Goa is trying to get back to normal. But with some new restrictions in force, locals say that it may not be the same again. Many worry that Goa’s image has taken a beating with the news of Scarlett’s murder and her mother’s behavior. Still, even with the headlines, tour operators in Britain disagree, saying that chartered flights from Britain are still landing into the state, which is nearing the end of its tourist season.